Making Grand Rapids friendlier

Josh Leffingwell wanted to make Grand Rapids a friendlier place to live. He figured the best way to do that would be to bring together the people who were already doing good with the people who wanted to do good and help them develop relationships.

Leffingwell and friend, Tyler Doornbos, created Friendly Corps to convert this idea into an official organization. They then started talking to like-minded friends, who then talked to their friends. A group of people met for the first time in February and the Salon Urbanist Meetups have been happening monthly ever since.

The purpose of the group and the meetings is to organize, implement and advocate for projects in the areas of transportation, urban improvement, city planning, the arts and business and community development. In other words, the goal is to make our city friendlier in every possible way.  

“What’s wrong with Grand Rapids and how can we fix it?” Leffingwell says it’s this type of question that inspires most of the group’s conversations.

Friendly Corps’ Salon meetups occur on the second Thursday of each month at Bill Kirk’s Open Source Studio on South Division Avenue. Topics are announced through the Salon Urbanist Meetup’s group page on Facebook. Even though it’s a closed group, anyone who lives in West Michigan and knows at least one other member gets approved. The reason the group is closed is because any one of the nearly 200 members can post ideas, articles and topic suggestions -- sometimes spurring lively discussions.

Each meeting averages a little more than an hour and around 20-30 people of all ages, races and professions attend. Usually, representatives from local government offices and nonprofit organizations show up and developers and designers often frequent the meetings as well.

On the Salon Urbanist Meetup Facebook group page, it says, “Tell us projects you want to do, let us know if you need help and let us know if you need volunteers.”

That’s generally how the group operates. Leffingwell says he and Doornbos are “just the facilitators” of the meetups and everyone is equally involved. Anyone can present an idea to be discussed.

During the first meeting back in February, the group met to discuss ways to get bike corrals installed around downtown and last month, one was installed on Jefferson Avenue near Fulton Street. The group considers this to be progress and hopes several more will be installed soon.

Organizations such as the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, WMEAC and the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition have presented at the Salon gatherings.

Recently, Lynee Wells from Williams and Works gave a presentation about the Build a Better Block initiative that’s expected to demonstrate a possible transformation of State Street next May. Friendly Corps is partnering with Wells on this project and the desired goal is to inspire developers and building owners to make permanent changes to the neighborhood as a result of the campaign.

A newly launched Friendly Corps project called Friendly Code shares the goal of making Grand Rapids a better place, but with the focus being online. Friendly Code, initiated by web developer Jonathan Pichot, is part of more than a dozen self-organized Code for America Brigades around the country. These “brigades” are independent groups of volunteer developers, designers and interested citizens who create and implement civic applications.

Friendly Code will have its first developer “hack night” on August 28 and has decided to focus its efforts on relaunching the site. Viget is a wiki, a collaborative website that allows user-generated content, that was initially created in 2007 by local developers Michael Greene, Paul Wittenbraker and George Wietor as an online place for Grand Rapids residents to share information about local people, places, things and more.

The Friendly Code group is looking for interested developers and designers who want to work and can commit to seeing a project to completion.

“We don’t want people only interested in suggesting something," says Pichot. "We need people who will contribute and own what they've built.”

That summarizes the overall concept of Friendly Corps. The group is interested in people who are willing to “get their hands dirty” in working toward making Grand Rapids a friendlier place to live. The organization is not an official nonprofit, there are no dues and no one gets paid, unless you count the donations Leffingwell gets when he supplies the group with pizza and beer.

If you want to get involved, here’s all of the information you need:

-    Visit Friendly Corps online to find out more.
-    Join the Salon Urbanist Meetup Group on Facebook.
-    Like Friendly Corps on Facebook.
-    Follow @friendlycorps on Twitter.
-    Like Friendly Code on Facebook.
-    Find out more about the Friendly Code Developer Hack Night on August 28.
-    Sign up for the Friendly Code newsletter.

Source: Josh Leffingwell of Friendly Corps and Jonathan Pichot of Friendly Code.

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos credits go to Josh Leffingwell for the photo of the bike corral; Alissa Lane for the photos of Josh Leffingwell, the neighborhood block party and the Salon meeting; and Craig Hickerson for the photo of Jonathan Pichot.  
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